Systems of Education

I love coffee.  I love it much less, however,  when it shoots through my nose.  I assume that people at the next table over experience an ebb in their relationship with the beverage when they get it sprayed on their backs.  I can’t blame them for being irked . . . but it really wasn’t my fault.  I couldn’t be held responsible for my reaction to sheer genius and a new level of comedic writing.  I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop sorting through some work stuff when my wife sent me a piece from one of our favorite blogs ‘The Scary Mommy’.  This particular piece by Elizabeth Alsop went was about progress reports from a Montessori school.  Check it out here So You Sent Your Kid to a Montessori School?  I barely got two paragraphs in before I went all nasal and airborne with my French Roast.

This is the same café that I played really loud reggae music in until I realized that I couldn’t hear the music so well because my headphones weren’t plugged in last month Feeling the Music.  I was kind of in a probationary period and shooting nose coffee on paying customers wasn’t going to be taken well.  I wiped coffee off my iPhone, got a refill on my drip because . . . gross . . . nose coffee . . . and ignored the French Roast sprayed lady at the table in front of me.  I got back to the blog post and walked down memory lane.

We sent both of our younger boys to Montessori schools at different times.  Eli went to pre-school and Charlie attended part of 3rd grade.  As Elizabeth Alsop makes very apparent, Montessori based education has very different outlooks and philosophies than standard public education.  Montessori schools teach based on the philosophy and methods of Maria Montessori, an Italian doctor and educator who apparently possessed more patience and natural inner calm than any person in recorded history.  Essentially she felt that children were inherently good and spiritual and should be allowed to explore and learn at their own pace within a loose, but tangible, structure.  She felt that if left to explore in this manner children would progress through learning stages.  This is a rough translation of her philosophy mind you.  I have a hard time grasping it because it can also be described as the absolute and complete opposite of my primary learning experience.  There is absolutely no way Mrs. Heist back at Morton Elementary was on the same page with Maria Montessori.  She just wasn’t.  Our boys each had very different experiences with Montessori-based education.

Montessori students don’t so much get grades . . . it’s not really about that.  Progress is reported on a daily and weekly basis.  Well . . . I am not sure if all students got daily reports written on them . . . I just know our two boys got them just about every day.  Eli absolutely embraced his opportunity to explore his education and inner feelings.  At first it was little stuff . . . his daily reports remarked on how ‘social’ he was.  Soon it was explained that ‘social’ meant he was ‘exploring’ his desire to talk when others were talking.  We made the proper adjustments at home.  Each time we got a report we had that ‘talk’.  By his second year Eli was fully exploring the freedom and ability to express himself that his school offered . . . and so was the staff.

One day I got a call around noon from somebody at the school.  I recognized the number and answered immediately.  The lady told me that they were having a bit of an issue getting Eli to take a nap.  I couldn’t hear all of it because it sounded like a troop of howler monkeys were fighting to the death with wiffle ball bats in the background.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I can’t hear you over the noise . . . could you repeat that?”   In the background one monkey sounded like he scored a kill shot and the others erupted in celebration.

“I said we are having a bit of an issue with Eli.”  The monkey battle seemed to have moved away a bit.

“Really?  What kind of an issue?” I asked.

“He refuses to take a nap,” she explained.  Apparently the opposing group of howler monkeys forged an alliance with a random band of donkeys and they staged a counter attack.  Over the din, I explained that I wasn’t sure why he was being allowed to ‘refuse’ anything an adult told him to do.

The counter attack pushed the center of battle past the telephone she was now unnecessarily shouting into the phone.  “WE ASKED HIM,” she explained.  “HE SAID NO!”

Really?  Are we surprised, I thought.  He never willingly goes down for a nap.  “Well, just take him and put him down and tell him he has to stay there,” I offered.  I wasn’t sure why I had to explain this.

The counter attack was beaten back and now apparently somebody was pelting the enemy with baseballs.  “We don’t really do that,” she said over the bombardment.  “We need you to come get him.”

“Come get him?” I asked in disbelief.  “Are you telling me you can’t control a four-year-old?  What is he doing now?”

“He is running up and down the hallway screaming at the top of his lungs,” she said.

I blinked.  The sounds of pitched battle between the howler monkey factions and donkey allies were actually Eli running through the school screaming.  I listened harder.  I thought if I played his noise backwards I would hear “NO I WON’T LIE DOWN” and “YOU CAN’T MAKE ME” woven in the monkey and donkey noises.

“Well, he is certainly exploring his inherent freedom and spirit,” I offered weakly.

“Sir . . .”

“I’ll be right there.”

We eventually got Eli to play nice with the staff.  I would get occasional phone calls when Eli and his best buddy would break into a cover of “I’m Sexy and I Know it” or “I Like Big Butts . . .” but for the most part Montessori education was a really good thing for him.  Academically, he fit right in when we put him in public kindergarten.

Charlie’s experience with Montessori wasn’t bad by any means, but it was different.  I firmly believe that to be effective a child must start Montessori very early.  Charlie was in third grade when we transferred him to a Montessori school.  When we enrolled him his teacher explained that he would be allowed to adjust to his new school and get to work at his own pace.

A few days later I walked into Charlie’s bedroom and sprung a snare made of braided yarn.  As I lay on my back with a yarn braid across my throat and wrapped around my ankles I very calmly asked Charlie where he had obtained the materials that I was now wrapped in.  He told me he got the yarn at school.

“What were you doing with yarn?” I asked.  As a prospective teacher I knew of no practical use for yarn in the Three Rs.

“I was hand weaving yarn,” he said with a smile.  He explained that he was allowed to play with yarn and sit in a bean bag at school.

“Do you do that during break times?”

“No, at break time I serve snacks,” he said.

“I beg your pardon . . .?”  That is what I say when I can’t think of anything else to say.

Charlie nodded . . . “I get to cut up vegetables and then put them on plates.”

“Well, if you like doing that . . . ”

“And after that I do laundry,”

I blinked.  We went to see Charlie’s teacher.

We found that, like Eli’s teachers, the people at this school allowed students to make a lot of their own decisions about what to work on.  Charlie was sincerely dedicated to hand-weaving yarn and laying in a bean bag and the chores.

“At some point very soon he will engage in academics,” his teacher told us confidently.

“No . . .  No he won’t,” I said with more confidence.  “I can tell you right now that if given a choice he will remain firmly in that bean bag.”

She smiled softly and tried to reassure me.  “I have been doing this a long time and children always do the right thing,” she said.  “He will start working.”

My wife suppressed a smile by tucking her lips between her teeth as I returned the teacher’s gaze.  “Ma’am,” I said gently.  “I have been that boy’s father all his life and I am telling you that unless you put some structure in his day his is going to hand-weave several sheep worth of yarn and completely wear out that bean bag.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Because when I were 9 years old and you told me I could lay on a bean bag and play with string or read something and do math I would have weaved enough sweaters for all my classmates.”

A week or so later his teacher reported triumphantly that Charlie willingly engaged in academics.  We would eventually move Charlie back to public school because he requires more structure.  However, at the moment I just smiled and nodded at his teacher.  I decided against telling her that I told Charlie if I saw one more yarn rope come out of the school that I would take him there every morning in my pajama pants and a dirty tank top.  Maria Montessori had her methods and I have mine.

Thanks for reading and sharing.  You can find my page on Facebook at This Side of the Diaper Facebook and on Twitter at @DiaperSide  We’ll talk again soon on This Side of the Diaper.





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